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UK Science Journal: Taco Bell Scandal A Warning
of a Future Catastrophe?

New Scientist (UK) October 7, 2000
Editorial, Pg. 3 536 words
Final warning
We can't ignore the taco fiasco. Next time it could be serious

THE contrast could hardly be starker. Two years ago, when biochemist Arpad
Pusztai claimed on British television that genetically modified potatoes harmed
rats, all hell broke loose. The reaction across the country was little short of
hysterical.

Then, last month, American consumers learned that they might have eaten
taco shells containing genetically modified maize that had not been approved
for human consumption. Did they boycott Mexican food ? Did they picket
supermarkets ? No. While a few green pressure groups tried to turn the
drama into a crisis, indifference ruled from coast to coast.

These events reveal the transatlantic gulf in attitudes to genetically modified
foods. It is a cultural curiosity, and so far a pretty harmless one. But there is
one difference between European and American attitudes that does give
cause for concern.

Pusztai worked on rats, with potatoes that were never intended for people
to eat and his methods have been widely criticised. Looked at this way, the
British public overreacted. By comparison, the Americans under-reacted.

That's not to suggest there's any evidence that the tacos' unwanted
ingredient - StarLink maize - will harm anyone. The US Environmental
Protection Agency withheld full approval only because there is no
way yet to prove that the protein added to StarLink won't produce an
allergic reaction in humans. The alarming feature of the case is that it
reveals the utter inadequacy of controls meant to keep crops such
as StarLink separate from those destined for our tables.

Up to now, this has not been a problem, because almost all modified plants
on the market have been food crops. But the next generation of modified
crops is going to be different. Biotech companies dream of creating plants
that produce everything from drugs and plastics to biofuels. The predicament
facing the food industry is that a banana containing a potent drug is likely to
look the same as the banana in your packed lunch.

Many green activists will be delighted that the StarLink case could delay
the introduction of such products (see p 6) and deal a blow to biotech
companies' profits. But they would do well to reflect on the possible benefits
of these modified plants. Can we afford to reject a technology that could deliver
cheap vaccines and medicines, and help wean the world off fossil fuels ?

In the field, there will have to be strict controls to stop strains modified to
make raw materials for industry from cross-pollinating food plants. And
segregation will have to be enforced at mills and other places where crops are
collected. But there's nothing new here. Already poisonous varieties of oilseed
rape destined for industry are kept separate from edible varieties.

Above all, food companies must take responsibility for the ingredients they use.
Why was it left to Friends of the Earth to commission the tests that found StarLink in taco
shells ? The food industry needs to get its act together before the new generation
of modified plants arrives. Next time, the consequences could be serious. Then even
Americans might lose their taste for genetic engineering.

For more science news see http://www.newscientist.com

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